NSO’s Bruckner 9

featuring Günther Herbig and pianist Louis Lortie

It will be some time yet before we discuss Bruckner’s final symphonic masterpiece here on the blog, even though we’re not actually that terribly far away, but I’ve mentioned somewhere before this odd experience I had with the piece, having somehow acquired some recording or other of the work. If I didn’t know what else to listen to in the car, or wanted to have something going to fill the silence, dramatic and intense as it is, I’d put in that Bruckner 9, and without any appreciation at all for musical structure or symphonic tradition or anything of the sort, I slowly got familiar with at least the first two movements. My car rides weren’t that long back in the day.

But it wasn’t until tonight that I heard the piece in the concert hall. To date, I’ve only heard Bruckner’s fourth, seventh, eighth (and now ninth) symphonies live, having unfortunately missed a few chances at hearing the third. I may be able to hear the sixth next month, but the others will likely prove more elusive.

I think maybe as I age, although I’m not willing to concede it now, and am resistant to the idea, I may become the kind of person who grows to appreciate or prefer Bruckner over Mahler. There’s something about maybe not so much the music on paper as much as it is exploring or experiencing it that seems somehow elusive and outstandingly deep.

In any case, we have two big concerts, this week and next, with Günther Herbig in town. Tonight we got Beethoven (who’s been on the blog a lot lately) and Bruckner in a pretty great program. I really wanted to bring some other people along, someone, to this concert, but there weren’t any available seats near me; the whole place was almost sold out, actually (mostly because the top floor wasn’t sold), but it wasn’t until I got there tonight that I realized that a significant portion of the seat-fillers were high schoolers. Great that they were there, and that the seats were filled, but even better that they behaved, by and large.

Just last year on a program (well, the beginning of last season, so in 2016, if you want to be technical), we had the NSO performing Beethoven’s third piano concerto, the C minor one, with Freddy Kempf, and yet here we have it again. The third and fourth (which we’ll also be seeing soon from them) are perhaps my favorites of the Beethoven bunch, not necessarily above the Emperor, but at least on par with it, it being the most ubiquitous of the five.

It really takes a remarkable performance of such a staple of the repertoire to be truly something to write home about. Lortie’s reading was clear, his cadenzas shimmery, and he struck me as one of the few people whose gestures somehow improve the experience rather than detract from it. They served visually to emphasize the pieces, as one gestures when speaking. Herbig’s treatment, with the orchestra, of Beethoven wasn’t the over-gilded inflated Romantic sound some people present (more in general rather than in this specific piece, and usually more with the symphonies). It was lean and muscular, and his movement and motion seems more limber and energetic than the last time I recall seeing him on the podium. Lortie and Beethoven were very good, but I think they both know they’re just the prelude for Bruckner.

There’s something very austere about having only one work on the program (like what Herbig will present next week), which you may see with something like Beethoven 9, Shostakovich 7, Mahler 3, or 8 or 9, etc. It also could just be that having Beethoven on the ticket improves sales, and as we’ve said, Bruckner is a hard sell here.

Listening to the opening of the ninth, how Bruckner’s music contours and undulates and kind of comes to live from his quiet opening passages, I thought hard about how the experience feels more and more different from hearing a Mahler symphony live. They’re both experiences. Rather than just listening to a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, it’s more like it happens to you, but the result is a very different experience.

I wanted so badly to bring just someone to this concert, to expose them unprepared to something as gargantuan and soul-singeing (wow that word looks awful) as this Bruckner symphony, because in some ways, especially for a new listener (or even some seasoned listeners who may not love Bruckner), it’s a challenge, and you’ve got to get through it somehow.

The form of the third, without the finale, is a kind of unintentional arch form, with two massive movements surrounding a quicker, but still immensely powerful scherzo and trio. I do feel like a trained musician is far more keen to appreciate Bruckner at first listen; matters of taste aside, to appreciate the kind of stuff that makes Bruckner’s music unique, it helps to have an understanding of the nuts and bolts of it all. He certainly doesn’t rely just on sweet, pretty melodies.

I digress. It’s a journey, and save a few unfortunate hairy spots from the oboe, I think the orchestra sounded really great. It’s easy to come out on the losing side of a comparison with all the recordings we listen to from Vienna or Berlin or Chicago or New York, and the NSO brass is unquestionably not the Chicago brass, but they sounded excellent this evening. If I had walked out of the concert and realized I no longer had eyebrows, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I can’t imagine having been in any of the first ten rows tonight, but they were full.

There’s something about being in the same physical space as the music happening before your ears; the experience or a newbie to Bruckner would be so wildly different sitting in the concert hall with this incredible journey. I myself have this strange relationship with the ninth, having come to know it sort of… accidentally, but now, listening to it, experiencing it live, you see the hows and whys and I have a deeper sense of appreciation for the music as a result.

Herbig conducted the Beethoven with a score, Bruckner without. He knows this music, not just where it goes and what it does, but exactly how he wants it to sound. The first movement was breathtaking, like seeing an enormous sprawling mountain landscape come into view. Bruckner’s music, in some people’s hands, can sound episodic and disjointed, but those potentially awkward pauses, the seams, struck me as full of tension, a kind of latent energy, rather than an extinguishing of it. Very effective.

The scherzo was fast. I love this scherzo. If you want to feel like an evil supervillain, walk down the street playing a good recording of this scherzo, and imagine you have a cape or something. Celibidache’s reading of this scherzo is almost laughably slow, and Skrowaczewski’s is…. challengingly fast. Herbig gives the late Skrowaczewski a run for his money with his reading, essentially conducting it in one beat, and while it’s very intense, very powerful, driving, all the rest, we do lose a bit of the detail and clarity (unless you’re, y’know, a superb world-class ensemble), so I found myself wishing that’d been curbed a bit.

The third movement, what now concludes this work rather than a finale, has to wear both of those hats, as slow movement and the final gesture in something so big, and I suppose that does present interpretive challenges. It really does sound Mahlerian though, with those opening gestures, like the old man reaching into a future that would not be. There are moments of almost blinding brightness in this movement, which contrast so much with the atmosphere of the previous two movements.

Applause was slightly slow to come after what I really do feel was a fantastic reading. Maybe listeners were counting, and hadn’t looked at the program, and expected a finale; I think, though, that there was just that magical moment of silence, and it was more than the final few notes just hanging in the air, their ephemeral echoes, perhaps being overwhelmed, but also, if you REALLY want to over-romanticize it, a moment of silence for the fourth movement that never was (but actually is and has been completed multiple times, as well as recorded).

I don’t have nearly the emotional attachment to Bruckner’s ninth as I do to what Herbig and the NSO will be presenting next week, but if tonight was any indication, there are some very good things to come.

Only seven more Bruckner symphonies to mark off my list. See you soon.

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